Pets can have a powerful impact on the social development of children with autism, reveals a new study from the University of Missouri, which found that children with autism have stronger social skills when they have a pet in the home.
It has long been known that dogs and other pets play an important role in people’ social lives, in large part because they can act as catalysts for social interaction. While past research has shown that dogs can improve the social skills of children with autism, this latest study is the first to document that children with autism can benefit from any type of pet in the home.
“When I compared the social skills of children with autism who lived with dogs to those who did not, the children with dogs appeared to have greater social skills,” said Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine.
“More significantly, however, the data revealed that children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to other people’s questions,” she said. “These kinds of social skills typically are difficult for kids with autism, but this study showed children’s assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.”
Pets often serve as “social lubricants,” said Dr. Carlisle. When pets are present in social settings or a classroom, children talk and engage more with one another. This effect also seems to apply to children with autism and could account for their increased assertiveness when the children are living in a home with pets, she said.
“When children with disabilities take their service dogs out in public, other kids stop and engage,” she explained. “Kids with autism don’t always readily engage with others, but if there’s a pet in the home that the child is bonded with and a visitor starts asking about the pet, the child may be more likely to respond.”
The results also revealed that children’s social skills increased the longer a family had owned a dog. When children were asked about their attachments to their pets, they reported the strongest attachments to smaller dogs. Additionally, parents reported that their children had strong attachments to other small animals in the home, a finding that Dr. Carlisle said has important implications.
“Finding children with autism to be more strongly bonded to smaller dogs, and parents reporting strong attachments between their children and other pets, such as rabbits or cats, serves as evidence that other types of pets could benefit children with autism as well,” she said.
For the study, Dr. Carlisle surveyed 70 families who had children with autism between the ages of 8 and 18. The children were patients at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Almost 70 percent of the families that participated had dogs, and about half of the families had cats. Other pets owned by participants included fish, farm animals, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, a bird and even one spider.
“Dogs are good for some kids with autism but might not be the best option for every child,” said Dr. Carlisle. “Kids with autism are highly individual and unique, so some other animals may provide just as much benefit as dogs. Though parents may assume having dogs are best to help their children, my data show greater social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet.”